Can Atalanta follow in Ajax's Champions League footsteps?
Background image: Luigi Chiesa, CC By-SA 3.0
When Atalanta lost their first three games in a Champions League baptism of fire, gaining a third-place finish, let alone a place in the knockout rounds, appeared a near-impossible task. Raheem Sterling’s early opener in their reverse fixture against Manchester City felt like the final nail in the coffin. Then, Pierluigi’s Gollini’s penalty save off Gabriel Jesus awoke the sleeping goddess. All the negativity transcended into the purest self-belief. In a game that Pep Guardiola might categorise as a comedy of errors, Gian Piero Gasperini’s side found their warrior-spirit.
La Dea's long believed in defying the odds. From gaining promotion from Serie B to outperforming the gigantic Milan sides on a shoe-string budget and with rejected players, the Bergamo side has done it all. What they hadn’t done was experience the joy of Champions League nights. Now they have a healthy appetite for them.
After defeating Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk in convincing fashion, they became the second side to progress in the competition despite losing their first three matches. Newcastle United were the first in 2002.
The round of 16 pairings won’t be kind. Defending Champions Liverpool or Lionel Messi’s Barcelona are distinct possibilities. For a side unaccustomed to Champions League knockout rounds, those are daunting foes. Regardless, don't expect Gasperini to mellow down his tactics. It isn't in his nature. The Black and Blues have nothing to lose. They've come this far. With a full-strength squad, the Italian will seek to go further.
Underestimating the Italian underdogs is a grave mistake. While lacking bona fide stars, La Dea possess enough firepower to burn any backline. Finding effective countermeasures for their attack is a daunting task in itself.
Other than the goalkeeper and, on most occasions, the centre-backs, no one is on a leash. Full-backs Timothy Castagne and Robin Gosens are not just capable wide players but often sneak into the penalty area to put away chances. Their incursions worked a treat against Shakhtar in their own yard.
However, the spotlight deservedly placed upfront on their three forwards. Alejandro “Papu” Gomez is perhaps the most creative Argentine not to play for his country. Josep Ilicic a relentless, driving figure. Duvan Zapata a powerful, clinical striker. In addition, Luis Muriel’s serves as the ideal backup, an unpredictable wildcard.
No one expects Liverpool or Barcelona to be intimidated but their underdog status works in Atalanta’s best interest. As long as they soak up the pressure when it's applied, there’s always a chance for an upset. They won't wait for opponents to come to them, however. They’ll maintain their original style, taking the game to the enemy.
Nobody expected Ajax to reach the semifinals last season with their young, inexperienced squad. Real Madrid and Juventus learned the cut of the Dutch champions' cloth. Erik ten Hag's squad adhered to their philosophy despite their opponents' pedigree. Confidence and self-belief can carry a squad far beyond their abilities. It took Atalanta a few games in the competition to find theirs but once they did, the precocious Italian outfit didn't look back. Whoever they draw in the Round of 16, expect La Dea to continue pressing the issue in the New Year.